Astros sign 'pretty impressive physical specimen' out of SEMO

Southeast Missouri State University's Justin Dirden (23) snags a fly ball after losing his hat in the outfield against Northern Illinois this past season at Capaha Field.
Southeast Missourian file

Southeast Missouri State baseball coach Andy Sawyers didn’t have any doubts that fifth-year senior Justin Dirden would be coveted by Major League Baseball teams this spring. It was simply a matter of whether or not the star outfielder would be selected in the abbreviated five-round MLB Draft this week or not.

“Obviously,” Sawyers said prior to the Draft, “we would love to have Justin back (in 2021), but I feel like he has done enough to get a shot at playing professional baseball. I think he is going to be drafted.”

As it turns out, Dirden wasn’t drafted, but the Houston Astros didn’t waste much time following the conclusion of Thursday’s selections and offered Dirden a contract Sunday.

Despite having the past two seasons cut short by injury (2019) and a global pandemic (2020), Sawyers said Dirden demonstrated enough “tools” to attract professional teams.

“I think he has above-average tools at the big league level,” Sawyers said.

Dirden brings a lot to the plate and showed that by being rated as the second “Hottest Senior Hitter” by D1 Baseball.

“He was hitting (.414) for us when we shut down,” Sawyers said, “so he has the hit tool and he has above-average power.”

Dirden was certainly productive this season. He led the Ohio Valley Conference in hits (29), home runs (nine), RBI (26), and total bases (63).

His nine home runs ranked second in the country, but Sawyers said Dirden has other assets that perhaps scouts notice, but fans might not.

“He’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds,” Sawyers said, “but he also runs pretty well.”

Dirden was leading the OVC in stolen bases (9 for 9) when the season ended.

“He can hit,” Sawyers said. “He can hit for power. He can run and he can really defend in right field.”

Dirden led the OVC in outfield assists.

“So you have an above-average (at the MLB level) defensive outfielder,” Sawyers said, “with above-average power, who can run, that is a pretty good physical piece. He’s a pretty impressive physical specimen.”

Sawyers said the key for Dirden moving forward will be how he handles the consistent velocity that he’ll see from professional pitchers.

The OVC doesn’t have arms that hit upwards of 96 m.p.h. every outing.

“I haven’t seen him do that,” Sawyers said of the adjustment. “It’s not that he can’t do it, but we don’t see that kind of velocity in the OVC.

“That is not a knock on him, that would just be a question mark.”

Having a player ink a professional contract isn’t a new thing for the Redhawk program.

Southeast Missouri has had 28 players drafted and five advance to the Major Leagues.

“We talk about winning (with recruits),” Sawyers said. “We talk about development. But we also talk about the guys who we have had here that have gone on and had success in the professional and major league levels.

“It’s always something to celebrate for (Dirden’s) contributions to the program.”

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